The best books about Abraham Lincoln from a historian and psychoanalyst

Charles B. Strozier Author Of Lincoln's Quest for Union
By Charles B. Strozier

Who am I?

I got my first job as a professor of history in 1972 in Springfield, Illinois, at a new university there. What can you do in Springfield except work on Lincoln? The more I read, the more intrigued I became. Lincoln draws you in. His lively mind and always well-written letters, along with his brilliant and memorable speeches, are endlessly fascinating. He also had genuine integrity as a human being and as a leader in our greatest crisis as a country. It is hard not to be inspired by Abraham Lincoln.


I wrote...

Lincoln's Quest for Union

By Charles B. Strozier,

Book cover of Lincoln's Quest for Union

What is my book about?

Lincoln’s Quest for Union is the first, and remains the only, serious psychoanalytic account of Lincoln’s inner life—from his childhood in Kentucky and Indiana, through his youth and adulthood in Illinois, his years of struggle finding himself in friendship and marriage, through his ascent to the presidency when he guided the nation and articulated for the country the meaning of the Civil War. 

“Surpassingly eloquent.”  The New York Times

The books I picked & why

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Lincoln

By David Herbert Donald,

Book cover of Lincoln

Why this book?

Donald’s one-volume biography of Lincoln remains the standard in the field. I knew David Donald and found him always generous. From his perch at Harvard, Donald dominated the Lincoln field for many decades. His biography of Lincoln stands head and shoulders above a host of more recent studies. In fact, it surprises me people keep writing biographies of Lincoln that go over the same ground repeatedly. Donald brings Lincoln alive with the authority that comes from a lifetime of reflection and writing on the Civil War and our greatest president.


Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

By James M. McPherson,

Book cover of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

Why this book?

Jim McPherson’s one-volume book about the Civil War is a wonderful read. He provides good context for the background of the war beginning in the 1840s and up through the political crises of the 1850s. He then masterfully tells the story of the war and its unfolding. The book is not specifically about Lincoln, but there is a lot about his leadership. David Donald said years ago that if everything remained the same but you switched Lincoln and Jefferson Davis (the President of the Confederate States of America) the South would have won the war.


Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln

By Douglas L. Wilson, Rodney O. Davis,

Book cover of Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln

Why this book?

William Herndon was Lincoln’s law partner and knew and worked with him from the early 1840s until 1861 when Lincoln left for Washington. After Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, Herndon tirelessly interviewed many of Lincoln’s family and neighbors from his childhood and youth. As I noted many years ago, Herndon’s project was the first oral history in American literature. His vast collection was long disdained by scholars. I used the records extensively myself and in the 1980s and 1990s those in the Lincoln field realized the letters and interviews were a priceless source. Doug Wilson and his colleagues did an excellent job in editing the Herndon material that is both invaluable for understanding Lincoln and providing a social history of the frontier in the early part of the 19th century.


Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850's

By Don E. Fehrenbacher,

Book cover of Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850's

Why this book?

Nothing equals this short introduction to Lincoln’s experience in the 1850s. One gains here an understanding of what Springfield on the urban frontier of America was all about, its muddy streets and yet remarkable collection of politicians like Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. It was truly an Athens on the prairie. Fehrenbacher also masterfully traces the role of circuit riding in Lincoln’s law career throughout the decade, as well as his keen sense of the nation’s crisis over slavery, especially after 1854. The book is very readable and accessible.


Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters

By Justin G. Turner, Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln

Book cover of Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters

Why this book?

Mary Todd Lincoln has been seriously misunderstood by most observers (including her most recent biographer). She was in fact a smart, lively, well-educated woman whom Lincoln loved and to whom he was emotionally drawn. Her troubled personality led to some distance between her and her husband in the 1850s, and her post-assassination despair grew in large part from the unrelenting criticism she endured. This definitive collection of her letters, interspersed with excellent biographical information, contextualizes the documents in a highly readable volume. Mary Todd Lincoln deserves our close and sympathetic attention.


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Interested in Abraham Lincoln, psychoanalysis, and the American Civil War?

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